United lay down title gauntlet

Manchester United’s destruction of rivals Manchester City may have set the tone for the coming Premier League season. City, who have been tipped by many to win the title, were forced to surrender in the Community Shield on Sunday despite a two goal lead.

While the result underlined the fact that Utd are the team to beat this season it also highlighted their rosy future ahead with youngsters Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck both impressing.

With City still to intent on playing defensively – in spite of their embarrassment of attacking riches – and Chelsea very much a work in progress with Andres Villas-Boas trying to trim the years away from an ageing squad, the Red Devils look the team to beat once again this season.

Arsenal transfers frustrate fans

In the summer break Arsenal have made three signings; two of them attacking – Gervinho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – with the only defensive addition 19-year-old Carl Jenkinson from Charlton.

Obviously, the new faces are not what the Emirates faithful had hoped for. With Arsenal still yet to end their trophy drought serious pressure will be on Arsene Wenger for the first time.

The Gunners are not short of creative midfielders, with Japanese starlet Ryo Miyaichi also gaining a work permit after being on loan at Dutch club Feyenoord last season, so the inability of Wenger to bring in new defensive recruits is even more baffling.

If Arsenal fail to sign two from Phil Jagielka, Gary Cahill and Christopher Samba and still do not improve on their ability at set pieces serious questions will be asked by the fans.

Newcastle sell off the family silver

While Arsenal’s transfer policy is confusing Newcastle United’s seems to be kamikaze. Kevin Nolan has been allowed to leave the club for West Ham, while Joey Barton, arguably the Magpies best player last term (apart from Cheick Tiote) and Jose Enrique could be heading for the exit.

Many of the players that have been bought in such as Yohan Cabeye and Sylvain Marveaux are unproven in the Premier League and their early form will be watched eagerly by the St James’ Park faithful.

However, fans will not be enthused by the arrival of Man Utd misfit Gabriel Obertan. Expect another difficult season on Tyneside.


Now Roo has to win back the fans

Days of speculation over the future of Wayne Rooney have finally come to an end. But the outcome was one that few would have predicted.

Many journalists, who are likely to feel rather silly now, had tipped the United forward for a sensational cross-Manchester move to arch rivals City.

Although Sir Alex Ferguson may be relieved that his main striker has decided to stay at Old Trafford the fans are unlikely to feel the same – at least at first.

Football fans, by their very nature, are notoriously fickle and the feedback on the messageboards, twitter feeds and blogs over the past week have been telling.

As soon as Rooney seemed destined to depart he became a greedy, overrated, overweight scouser, which is a far cry from the player United fans had put on the same pedestal as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

Moreover, many fans will be disgusted by the way in which the striker seemingly held the club to increase his already astronomical salary onto another stratosphere.

As long as Rooney’s terrible form continues there will be a question mark over both his true ability and his commitment to the club.

However, his real status on the red side of Manchester will only become clear when his form picks up again – then we will see how United fans really feel about their talisman.

On second thoughts: Other famous transfer u-turns

Sol Campbell

Big Sol, former Notts County, Spurs and Arsenal defender famously irked the Gunners faithful by letting his contract run down to play football abroad. Campbell only made it as far as the South Coast and ended up at Portsmouth.

David Unsworth

Defender Unsworth was labelled the “biggest clot in football” by then Aston Villa manager John Gregory after deciding we wanted to join Everton just days after signing for the Villains.

Robbie Keane

The Irish forward, who never seems to settle at any club joined Liverpool in July 2008 from Spurs for a fee of almost £20m. By January has back on the bench at White Hart Lane.

End of season review: Ton-up Chelsea scoop title

Although the title race went the distance there is no doubt that Chelsea were the best Premier League by some way this season.

Despite losing six times, Chelsea still managed to beat Arsenal, Liverpool and Man Utd home and away, managing to hit the back of the net a PL record 103 times on their way to a third title.

Carlo Ancelotti must be praised for finally exercising the demons of Jose Mourinho, while Florent Malouda, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba hid the deficiencies of a stuttering Chelsea defence.

However, this season is a massive missed opportunity for Arsenal and Liverpool, who have both come close in recent seasons, to chase down their major rivals who had been weakened by age and the sale of key players.

While the Gunners and the Reds stuttered, credit must be given to their city rivals Tottenham, who claimed a place in the Champions League preliminary round, and Everton – for shrugging off a poor start to narrowly miss out on the Europa League.

The surprise package of the season must be Birmingham City, widely tipped for relegation, managed to string together a 15 game unbeaten run, held together by the impressive performances Scott Dann, Roger Johnson and Joe Hart at the back.

The bottom half of the Premier League was as poor as ever with Wigan (who conceded 55 away goals) and West Ham (only seven away points) undeservedly staying up and Burnley, Hull and Portsmouth well off the pace resigned to playing Championship football next season.

Player of the year
Didier Drogba

The official award went to Wayne Rooney but Didier Drogba managed to scoop the Golden Boot with 29 goals despite missing most of January at the African Nations Cup.

Manager of the year
Roy Hodgson / Carlo Ancelotti

If it was on both league and cup form the award would go to Roy Hodgson for leading Fulham to the Europa League final and to a comfortable 12th place finish.
But Ancelotti has been the best league manager, transforming Chelsea into a more attractive side and bringing much more stability to a side which has had four different mangers in the last two seasons.

Most improved player
Florent Malouda

The former Lyon winger looked like a completely different player for Chelsea this season after finally settling in England. Honourable mentions go to AstonVilla’s Richard Dunne, Man Utd’s Nani and Fulham’s Bobby Zamora.

Signing of the season
Thomas Vermaelen

The Arsenal defender was bought into the club to fill a Kolo Toure shaped hole and was assured throughout the season despite being written off for being to small.
Man Utd’s signing of Antonio Valencia from Wigan and Sunderland stealing Darren Bent from Spurs also come close.

Everton’s surge for Europe; United’s title race slip; Zamora for England

MUCH of the talk of surprise packages in the league this season have centred around noveau-riche Manchester City, flattering-to-decieve Tottennham Hotspur and the ultra-direct Aston Villa.

But no-one is nattering about Everton. The Toffees have produced a number of outstanding performances this season including impressive wins against Chelsea and Manchester United and a battling draw at the Emirates against Arsenal.

Their good form has come despite a poor start to the campaign and terrible injury record but since their pre-Xmas fightback against Spurs, coming from 2-0 at Goodison to claim a draw they have only lost once (and that was against local rivals Liverpool).

With Mikel Arteta finally back from his lay-off are a strong bet to make the Europa League at the very least.

EVERY defeat at the top of the league seems to signal either the end of a title race or marks the beginning of a crisis but Manchester United’s recent form must be a worry for their fans.

The Red Devils looked very beatable in the European excursion to Milan, with Wayne Rooney eventually pulling them through but their makeshift defence crumbled in the second half at Goodison Park.

The still have to face Cheslea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Spurs in their last 11 games knowing that only wins will be good enough to secure their 19th title.

But without Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand it could be a tough ask.

A BANDWAGON is snaking its way through Fulham and Hammersmith picking up anyone who rates Bobby Zamora as an England forward.

While Zamora would be an outside bet for a place in the squad (depending on the number of strikers Fabio Capello takes there are sill a number of credible of choices ahead of him including Theo Walcott, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Darren Bent.

But as long as Michael Owen stays at home I don’t think anyone will complain.

The three horse title race, Birmingham City and England’s World Cup chances

The three-horse title race

During the past week Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal have all has their turn at the top of the Premier League.

Despite all the talk of the bug four dominance there has not been a genuine title race with more than two teams since Liverpool pushed Newcastle and Manchester United close in 1995/96.

Currently at the top of the table, with more than half the games played, just three points separate the top three sides.

Although Chelsea are favourites, United have hung in there despite their poor form and injury problems and if Arsenal can pick up a decent haul from their next four games (when they face Aston Villa and Liverpool in addition to Chelsea and United) the title could go right down to the wire for the first time in 15 years.

Birmingham continue to impress with cup win

While Birmingham were many pundit’s favourites to plunge straight back into the Championship they continued to prove doubters wrong with an away win at Goodson against a resurgent Everton side on Saturday.

The FA Cup victory set-up an away tie with second-tier strugglers Derby County but more importantly stretched the club’s record unbeaten run to 15 games.

With Cameron Jerome and Christian Benitez looking impressive up-front, Joe Hart solid in goal and Lee Bowyer recapturing his Leeds United form City look a good bet for a top 10 finish.

A real test of the side’s credentials will come on Wednesday when they face Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

England World Cup bid already in doubt

Most sensible fans would probably tip Spain and Brazil for this year’s World Cup but anyone brave enough to back England would already be fearing for their chances.

While it might seem odd to write-off one of Europe’s better sides before a ball has been kicked, the current state of the squad must be a worry.

No-one has seized the number one jersey, with David James unsettled at Portsmouth, and the defence might creak with Glen Johnson, Rio Ferdinand and John Terry suffering from injury and loss of form.

In midfield, Steven Gerrard has been well below his best and it is unclear who will start on the flanks, while the only player on good form at the moment is Wayne Rooney.

The upcoming game against Egypt in March will be an important barometer for Fabio Capelllo’s men and will give some players a chance to book their seat on the plane to South Africa.

Man Utd, Liverpool and the defence of Adebayor

Owen late show steals points for United

Any away fans at Old Trafford over the last 20 years would have had sympathy for Mark Hughes this weekend.

The former United striker saw his unfancied City wide comeback three times yesterday – only to lose out to a 95th minute strike from Michael Owen.

Pundits have pointed to the fact that the referee was in his rights to add an additional two minutes to the allotted four minutes – due the Craig Bellamy’s dramatic equaliser and the introduction of Michael Carrick during injury time.

But over the years United definitely seem to have the rub of the injury time green securing late, late wins against QPR, Wimbledon and Sheffield Wednesday in the last two decades.

Whether ‘Fergie-time’ exists or whether the Red Devils have a knack of securing late victories is unclear but we’ve all seen enough to it is not purely coincidence.

Liverpool show frailties in West Ham win

While Liverpool also took all three points at Upton Park this weekend manager Rafa Benitez must be concerned over his side’s defence.

The bedrock of Liverpool’s relative success has been built on a sturdy defence but it seems the Reds will not be able to rely on their rearguard action at least for the time being.

While Jamie Carragher has always lacked pace and has been prone to a mistake he has been worse than usual of late. And the jury is still out on Martin Skrtel.

Liverpool need to get Daniel Agger back quickly or cross their fingers until January and dip into the transfer market.

Adebayor criticism masks appalling fan behaviour

No-one could dispute that Emmanuel Adebaoy’s stamp on Robin Van Persie recently was disgraceful.

But over the last week he has been roundly criticised for running the length of the pitch to celebrate in front of the Arsenal fans after his recent goal at the Ctty of Manchester Stadium.

However, very little has been said about the Arsenal fans.

While his actions were not wise fans should not be excused for the aggressive reactions.

There was no need, and no point, in surging forward to remonstrate with the Togolese – especially after the abuse they gave to him all game.

Burnley defeat underlines lack of United defensive cover

Perhaps Burnley where somewhat fortuitous in the nature of their 1-0 win over Manchester United at Turf Moor last night.

Robbie Blake’s fine volley stole all three points for the home side but if the Red Devils converted their chances – including a Michael Carrick penalty – they would not have returned to Old Trafford empty handed.

For the majority of the transfer window Utd have been pursuing replacements for Cristiano Ronaldo and Cralos Tevez but perhaps they should be looking for acquisitions further back.

Even though United were on for an unprecedented quintuple last season they looked less than assured in defence when they were without Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic through injury.

Last night, with a rusty Wes Brown and Jonny Evans at the heart of their usually solid defence, they always looked as if they might concede a goal.

Rafael and Fabio da Silva will ensure that United have plenty in reserve at full back but their lack of quality centre backs could prove to be a headache – especially if Ferdinand and Vidic do not remain fit for the entire season.

With 11 days left in the transfer window, Sir Alex Ferguson may have to go back to the market to secure one high quality central defender.

After all, Utd will face much sterner away tests between now and May.